We asked 25 former Knoxvillians to tell us what they really think about our fair city

by Jack Neely

You've gotten the change-of-address cards, you've seen the moving vans. Knoxville isn't exactly drying up and blowing away, but between the crashing of Whittle and Levi's, massive layoffs from TVA and ORNL, attrition at UT, and transfers from Philips, Knoxville has lost thousands of bright citizens in the last few years, professionals who are trying their luck in other cities and towns. They leave many of the rest of us wondering what it would be like to be an ex-Knoxvillian.

Only one thing seems sure: We'd have a perspective on this city we probably don't have now. Longtime Knoxvillians with jobs and kids in school and a 30-year mortgage on Knoxville real estate may willfully overlook the city's shortcomings—or, to keep the peace with the neighbors, keep mum about them. When people leave, they're usually polite enough to not tell us exactly why they're leaving, with a vague apology like, "It was just time for me to move on..."

Just as often as we ignore Knoxville's faults, we may also take Knoxville's best sides for granted and never guess what's unique to this city—what's missed by those who no longer live here.

Anyway, we were curious about how Knoxville looks in the rearview mirror, so we asked several former Knoxvillians who've seen it that way. We wanted to know, now that they're free to tell us, what they really think about this place.

We located 25 people of a broad range of ages and professions who had lived in Knoxville for at least a few years, but now live somewhere else—and let them vent. Not surprisingly, those most critical of Knoxville were those who had lived in much larger cities. The perspectives each brought here are sometimes so different from the others that their impressions of Knoxville may remind us of the story of the six blind men and the elephant—but they all have points worth hearing.

By the way, in outlining each of these responses, we're not including the quote, "I miss my old friends;" it would be redundant. The only response all these had in common was something to that effect. And don't get angry at any of these responses; none of the negative opinions were volunteered, shouted out of a car window with an obscene gesture. Most came from ordinarily civil folk who used to smile and nod as we went on about what a great place Knoxville is. We asked for these comments—and we asked these folks to be unsparing, to give us some honest and maybe even constructive criticism.

A Face

Several comment that Knoxville seems like something less than a real community, with a public presence and an involved populace. Some suggest that fact had something to do with their leaving. By some descriptions, Knoxville sounds like a sort of loose confederacy of private social clubs which only coexist in the same geographical region—or, one commented, a ghost town of empty houses abandoned by residents who choose to spend their free time out of town. When it's not Boomsday, Knoxville can leave newcomers feeling lonesome or bored.

Margo Milleret, who lived in West Hills with her husband and son from 1987 to 1992, taught Portuguese and Spanish at UT. She and her husband had lived in Austin for years, and found that Knoxville didn't have "what we saw as necessary for living well." Knoxville, she says, "didn't have enough good public parks and pools. Knoxville didn't have an active downtown area with restaurants, clubs, shops..." They're now happy in Albuquerque, though their teenage son says he misses Knoxville.

Tom Lombardo, now of Portland, thinks he's seen the secret formula to urban living. One of Whittle Communications' chief editors, Lombardo lived in Knoxville for 13 years. After leaving Whittle, he worked over the Internet and could have stayed in his Sequoyah Hills home. But three years ago, he and his wife moved to Portland, Oregon—partly because they were impressed with that city's aggressive public planning. "This is a city planned for its people, not for its developers. Knoxville is a city planned for the big developers, the people who have money. The people who live [in Knoxville] have no say. Downtown is dead or dying, and you have strip malls all the way out to the county line. There's no rational urban planning."

Upon his arrival in Portland, Lombardo says, "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. In Portland, we have a vital downtown, with restaurants and movie theaters. Any time of the day or night, people go downtown. And here's a thing they'll never think of in Knoxville: We have something called traffic calming." Rather than forever widening roads, he explains, Portland actually removes lanes to make highways narrower and slow traffic down. "The merchants love it," Lombardo says observing that outdoor cafes have sprung up along the traffic-calmed routes. "Slow traffic is good for retail."

Lombardo says Portland often blocks streets off altogether, for lively holiday parties. "It's the kind of thing that could exist in Sequoyah Hills, but doesn't."

Lombardo laments that Knoxville leaders often seemed uneducated. "They don't seem to be aware of what's possible beyond what already has been done," says Lombardo. "There's still a lot of cronyism, a lot of let's just be good ol' boys and maintain the status quo. They're not aware of what can be done."

Like many of those most critical of Knoxville, Lombardo hailed from larger cities: Pittsburgh, originally, and New York. But even for native Knoxvillians, homecomings can be bittersweet. Former TVA employee Erin Miller has lived in Berkeley since early '96. A 30-year-old architect working on a graduate degree in urban planning, she grew up in Knoxville. "I miss the land a lot," she says. "I've come to understand what a strong attachment I have to this place. I've come across more people who don't have a sense of their own place." She says she's prouder to be Southern in Berkeley than she was when she lived here.

Home for the holidays, she was taken aback by how different her hometown seems from the Bay Area home she's already used to. "It's so discouraging to be driving down the interstate and I can't see anything except Shoney's signs," she says. She was shocked to see what happened to Deane Hill. "The fact that they leveled this land without any consideration for how it's changing the landscape astonishes me," she says. Recent news of other projects seems to further her impressions. "This place—this community—is really being devastated," she says. "It breaks my heart." She says she loves Knoxville but may never live here again.

Chicago-raised Kim Riggs lived here for several years, working as a researcher at Whittle and attending UT. She liked Knoxville in most respects. Her main criticism is that Knoxville lacks the historical preservation that seems more successful in Lexington, her new home. When she moved here, Riggs was first attracted to Knoxville for its eccentric older buildings downtown and in Fort Sanders, whole blocks of Victorian homes of a sort she'd never seen before. But while she was here, several of her favorites were demolished. "Knoxville seems too eager to tear down everything that makes it enchanting," she says.

Some blame the leaders themselves, one proposing—in jest, we hope—multiple assassinations as the only solution. Miller lambastes Knoxville's leadership. "They're there to make the best decisions for the community," she says, "but I don't think they do. They just take advantage of the place." But she also blames the electorate. "The Knoxville community is terribly passive. That's the thing that strikes me most," about living in California after 28 years in Knoxville, she says. In Berkeley, she says, community meetings are everyday events. "But in Knoxville, you hear people lamenting about the baseball stadium leaving East Knoxville or tearing down the S&W. And if you ask, 'Why don't you write the mayor?' they'll say, 'Oh, no, I don't do that,' or 'It doesn't matter if I do that.'"

"These people aren't stupid," she says. Still, she suspects that many Knoxvillians who see suburban sprawl as inevitable—or even as "progress"—haven't seen how well other cities have solved similar problems. "They've probably never been to a place with good public transportation," she says.

She thinks Knoxvillians are preoccupied with maintaining their "low cost of living"—especially low property values—even when it means driving much greater distances than people in many cities do. In Berkeley, she says, it takes her about two months to use a tank of gasoline. Visiting Knoxville, she says, "it seems as if I do nothing but drive."

Miller, in fact, thinks Knoxville's relatively low property values may be a significant problem. In the Bay area, the high costs force more efficient uses of land. "The lots are smaller," in Berkeley, she says, "and the streets are narrower." Knoxville's cheap land, by contrast, is "why you see West Knoxville being raped so badly" with sprawling commercial developments of highways, cheaply constructed buildings, and "seas of parking."


For younger singles, of course, university-town Knoxville can seem like a funhouse. Riggs spent much of her 20s in Knoxville, most of it working as a researcher at Whittle Communications. "I had the time of my life in Knoxville," she says, citing the late-night dance clubs and the "great bars. I went in the old Longbranch, and felt at home immediately."

However, several respondents, especially single adults over 30, decry Knoxville's lack of social opportunities. For some of them that lack was exactly what drove them away.

Magazine journalist Ron King left Knoxville and began his own communications company in cable-mecca Denver. Leaving Whittle Communications in 1993, he intended to stay in Knoxville indefinitely; he wanted to start his own communications business, and he had a decade's worth of contacts here. "Starting a business is dependent on knowing people," he says. "It would have been far, far easier for me to do that in Knoxville, where I knew a lot of people." But by '94, he was on his way to Denver.

"One of the main reasons I did leave was that I was a single guy." Divorced and in his early 40s, King says he was in no hurry to remarry. "Knoxville is so devoid of single people" his age, he says. "I felt it wasn't right for me. One thing I do not miss is there's a slight prejudice against being single, and a real tendency to get you fixed up and married as soon as possible."

Linda Munson, a veterinary professor in her 40s, didn't know King here, but would agree. A Bostonian who had also lived in Washington, D.C., Munson moved here in 1991 to teach at UT's College of Veterinary Medicine. She left Knoxville by choice last summer. In Knoxville, she says, "single women were considered Scarlet O'Haras—anomalies that should be excluded from social activities. I was not alone in this sentiment." (Apt observations, perhaps—but for the record, Knoxvillians are statistically less likely to be married than are Americans as a whole.)

Now happy in Davis, Calif., when she was in Knoxville Munson never found a certain liveliness she has observed in other cities; to her, life in Knoxville became monotonous and ultimately boring. She says Knoxville lacked a joie de vivre, the quality "that makes life alive," she says. In describing Knoxville, she says, "Benign is the word that comes to mind."

King hasn't heard what Munson says about Knoxville's joielessness. But talking on the phone in his Denver office at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, King is trying to describe a certain lack he felt here. He looks outside and describes a man whirling over downtown Denver in a paraglider. "There!" he says, as if he just thought of a word he was looking for. "I don't recall seeing that in Knoxville."

Others concur: "San Francisco is a lot more lively, oriented toward life and the living of it," says Jonathan Tuttle, who moved his family to Marin County in 1994. "But then, I never felt that way anywhere in the East."

Parodoxes of Size

Describing Knoxville, people seem drawn to paradox. To some, Knoxville's surprisingly sophisticated and culturally lively for a city so small. To others, Knoxville is disappointingly slow and stuffy for a university town—especially one that is, after all, larger than most university towns.

"Knoxville's the biggest smallest town," says Chris Brown, now of Memphis. "There's a little of a lot of things, and not an overabundance of any one thing. Sometimes you'd see the same people four times in one day, in four different places—and there were some you'd never see."

King grew up in South Carolina and had spent years in Atlanta and Bozeman, Mont., before moving to Knoxville; he moved to Denver three years ago. "Knoxville is such a bipolar community," he says. "Isolationism has been part of the history of East Tennessee, and sometimes I felt remote. But the university has helped make Knoxville international. I have a great interest in French language and culture, and in Knoxville I had no problem finding friends who were native French speakers."

He adds that in spite of its remoteness, Knoxville was still "much closer to the huge commercial stream of the East Coast" than is Colorado. He suspects the New York Times makes more references to things in Knoxville than it does to things in Denver. King has been surprised that Knoxville's booming cable-TV industry has prompted him to send employees on business trips to his old home.

Riggs grew up in Chicago but has lived in Lexington for three years. For four years in between, she lived in Knoxville. "Knoxville was a small city that kind of thought like a big city," she says. "Just without the tall buildings and the 6,000 Thai restaurants. I miss Knoxville all the time, especially in comparison to Lexington. There's just not enough going on here, no good mix of people here."

She saw a good mix here, but many don't. "The Melting Pot of America missed Knoxville," says Munson, "or Knoxville made it unwelcome." Ethnic diversity, and Knoxville's apparent lack of it, was mentioned by several respondents—but that's a bit of a puzzle. According to the last census, Knoxville's total share of racial minorities is about 17.3 percent—close to that of America as a whole, which is 19.7 percent. And census figures don't usually include Knoxville's considerable population of foreign students and their families. However, the greater Knoxville metropolitan area is more overwhelmingly white and native-born, and it's probably reflected in Knoxville's commercial culture.

Three respondents called Knoxville "intolerant," one recalling the daily assault of militant political bumper stickers on Kingston Pike. (Some have commented that bumper stickers are much more common here than in other parts of the country; no one mentions missing them.) However, one gay couple, forced by a job transfer to move to a smaller community in another state, say they miss Knoxville's tolerance. "In Knoxville, we were accepted everywhere we went," says one. "We weren't somebody's 'gay friends.'" Now, they say, they could lose their jobs over it.

Several found Knoxville's size ideal, a perfect mix of large and small. Virginia Wagner, a middle-school counselor originally from the Midwest, has lived in various cities and towns around the country, including Branson, Mo.; Elgin, Ill.; and Davenport, Iowa. She spent more than a decade in Knoxville, but has lived in Hillsborough, N. C., for the last four years. "I've lived in 13 different places," she says. "Knoxville is, by far, my favorite of all. I did not want to leave, but the person I fell in love with had a job somewhere else." (Her husband teaches at Duke.) "I liked Knoxville's size," she says. "It's big enough to find most everything I want, but small enough that it's easy to get around."

Gina Ruffner, a 30-year-old Emergency Medical Technician, moved to Laurel, Miss.—a county-wide community of perhaps 60,000—last summer. Many of her comments about Knoxville are mirror opposites of those given by people who moved to larger cities. She says she misses the diversity, tolerance, efficiency, and faster pace of Knoxville. "We thought church was big in Knoxville," she says. "But here in Laurel, there are two things you do: You go to work and you go to church. People are on a different time frame here," she says. "They're on Mississippi time. They get to things when they get to them."

She says Laurel doesn't host much live music. "I lived in Nashville for years, and hated it. There was too much going on; you don't appreciate it. If it's spread around more, you do. Knoxville's just big enough," she says, to support interesting shows and cultural events.

Melissa Allen is a 25-year-old paralegal working for the Georgia State Bar in Atlanta. "I miss going to a show and seeing it more intimately than you do here." She says the same performers may draw five times as big a crowd in Atlanta as in Knoxville.

Munson, however, found the same phenomenon a frustrating fault, disappointed that Knoxville didn't always support what cultural attractions the city was lucky enough to have. "Charlie Haden and other jazz greats could come to town and only one-third of the theater would be filled," she recalls. "But the football stadium was sold out a year ahead."

It's safe to say that many people who move to Knoxville as adults never fully get the Vols thing. Riggs says the only time she didn't enjoy Knoxville was "when it's football time in Tennessee."

(For the record, four of the five respondents who mentioned UT athletics in any positive way were Knoxville natives. One, Miller, is not a great football fan, but praises it as an anthropological phenomenon. "It's a remarkable coming-together of a community. It's pretty dramatic to see a community rooting for something to perform for them.")

Some say they miss Knoxville's college-town atmosphere. Others have never detected it. One former Knoxvillian said she was persuaded to accept a job in Knoxville partly by the knowledge that Knoxville was the home of a major university. Originally from small-town Wisconsin, Anne Krueger had spent a decade in New York before she moved to Knoxville in the '80s, confident that the city had the trappings of a college town like Madison, Wisconsin, which is comparable in size to Knoxville (though its university is much larger than UTK). "Madison was an incredibly lively, diverse place, with different kinds of people and different ways of thinking," she says. To Krueger, Knoxville doesn't seem as "energized" as Madison and even other places like Chattanooga. Like several Whittle editors, Krueger moved to San Francisco in '93—but unlike the others, she moved back to Knoxville in '97, when her husband found work in Knoxville's burgeoning cable-TV business. Still skeptical of whether there's life in Knoxville, Krueger admits she may not be aware of all Knoxville has to offer. The difference may be visibility. "In New York, you don't have to look" for interesting things to do, she says. "In Knoxville, you do."

Nostalgia for Knoxville's Crime and Traffic

Ironically, many longtime Knoxvillians might mention that Knoxville's two biggest problems are crime and traffic. Those impressions aren't shared by recent émigrés, especially those acquainted with other cities. Many, even those who had mainly negative impressions of Knoxville, mention Knoxville's "low risk of crime" and the fact that there's "no traffic." Compared to most big cities that most young professionals seem to prefer, Knoxville doesn't have much of either. "Knoxville has bone-crushing traffic at rush hour," says Steven Horn, editor of the formerly Knoxville-based literary journal Entelechy. "San Francisco has bone-crushing traffic at all times. Truly."

Melissa Brown, 26, is a Memphis native who lived in Knoxville for five years, ending in 1995. During that time, she lived on East Jackson Avenue and worked for two years at HooRay's. "I miss the sense of security," she says. "There's just not as much crime" in Knoxville. Her husband, Chris, agrees. "I especially miss Fourth and Gill," he says. "You could walk downtown anytime, walk to the Old City at 2:00 in the morning, and be safe. I miss the safety."

They both seem astonished that some consider their old Knoxville neighborhood dangerous. Several former Knoxvillians, in fact, speak highly of the Old City, even some who live in big cities with lively downtowns. Greg and Anne Abel, who moved to Denver last spring, say it's better than anything in Denver. "The Old City was fun and full of energy, mainly due to the young college students," says Greg, who's originally from Austin. "LoDo [the urban entertainment district in Denver] is expensive and trendy, just not Anne's and my cup of tea."

Family Town?

Tuttle, a 38-year-old art director and father of two, compares San Fran and Knoxville as family towns. "It honestly balances out," he says. "There are fewer cultural things to do in Knoxville, but things are so much easier to do there. San Francisco has a real advantage on the big things; Knoxville has a real advantage on the little things."

He adds he was eager to expose his Tennessee-born children to San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. "The kids absolutely hated it," he says.

Munson calls Knoxville "a nice family community" with some irony. Knoxville's too family-oriented even for some families. Courtney Warfield and her husband moved here in the '80s from rural upstate New York and had their two children in Knoxville. Two years ago, they moved back there— right between New York City and Boston, but in a place so remote that delivery pizza's not an option. Her memories of Knoxville are mostly fond, and she says she may return someday. But as a parent of two children under 12, she found herself overwhelmed with the logistics of balancing crowded itineraries.

"Living in Knoxville, there's 50 million attractions for kids. There's soccer, gymnastics, swimming, dance, music, scouts..." She found her children so bombarded with options and obligations that she longed for the simplicity of the New York countryside. "Here there are no distractions. You've got nothing you feel you have to do, just because everybody else is doing it all." The simplicity seems to help her and her kids prioritize. There are options in upstate New York, of course, but you have to travel to get to them. "If it's important to you," she says, "you do."

A few found Knoxville's much-advertised friendliness overrated. Bicyclist Lombardo, who lived here for 13 years, found Knoxvillians friendly in person, but behind the wheel of a car, many turned into anti-bicyclist jerks. "The attitude of drivers here [in Portland] is much more tolerant," he says. "In Knoxville, I had altercations frequently on the road. People would yell at you, throw stuff at you, come real close to you, try to run you off the road." He now rides to work, something he never dared in Knoxville. Another West Coast resident, though, claims Knoxvillians are much more tolerant of other automobiles. "At stoplights in Knoxville, people sometimes let you sit through an entire cycle without so much as a honk," says Steven Horn of San Francisco. "Here, you get a brick through your window in about three seconds."

Another ex-Knoxville San Franciscan, though, insists the City by the Bay is at least as friendly as Knoxville is. "The standard complaints about big cities are a load of crap," says Tuttle. "People out here are really open and friendly." San Franciscans express their friendliness in tolerance. "In San Francisco, you can pretty much be whatever the hell you want, and nobody is gonna say boo."

Ruffner says Laurel, Miss., is also friendlier than Knoxville is. "Knoxville prides itself on being a friendly community," she says. "In reality, it's very cliquish." She says she lived in a new subdivision in Northwest Knoxville for four years and left without ever meeting her neighbors. The day her moving van arrived in Laurel, she was getting visits from neighbors, homebaked cookies and pies.


Recalling Knoxville, most mentioned something we can't claim to own: the landscape. Most missed the mountains and lakes—but it may surprise us to know, many don't. Several Westerners, Midwesterners, and some deep Southerners seem to feel trapped by our hills, trees, and rainy skies.

Originally from Austin, Bill Grimes has lived in Sacramento for the last four years. Before that, he lived with his wife and two kids in Northeast Knoxville for four years. A true Texan, he never got used to the fact that "you can't really see the horizon" in Knoxville.

Melissa Brown of Memphis isn't enthusiastic about Knoxville's terrain. "I like the mountains," she allows, "but Knoxville's not really in the mountains, is it? Knoxville's only surrounded by mountains." The Memphis-raised 26-year-old said this valley made her feel just a little claustrophobic. It's an observation echoed by Texan Vance Bass, who now lives in Albuquerque. Bass felt stifled by "the stillness of the air" in Knoxville—which is indeed, thanks to those mountains, one of the least-windy cities in America—and says the lush trees made him "feel isolated from the world."

Like the weather, we can't do much about our terrain, outside of leveling the occasional West Knoxville hill. But these observations offer insight into the perspectives of different people, whether it's landscape or city size; many are strongly biased in favor of what they grew up with.

So, we've found as many points of view as we had respondents. Chop Knoxville up and pour the pieces into a kaleidoscope. Every time you talk to somebody else, give it a vigorous turn. Everyone sees different high and low points, each has a distinctly different picture of a city they loved and hated, depending partly on their particular jobs, their neighborhoods, their friends, their memories of childhood homes, their distinctively different vantage points. Still, beyond the contradictions and the occasional overstatement, there are some general themes in their memories—and for us, maybe some clues.